Katie Bowler Young
Music Credit: “NY” composed and performed by Kosta T from the cd Soul Sand, used courtesy of the Free Music Archive.
Jo Reed: Welcome to Artworks, the weekly podcast from the National Endowment for the Arts, I’m Josephine Reed.
One of the most important public artists in New Orleans is Enrique Alférez who was born in rural Mexico of indigenous Nahua heritage. His life literally spanned the 20th century and his distinctive vision helped shape the look of the city for over seventy years. And if you don’t know his work, stop listening and google Enrique Alférez and take a look at the detail and breadth of his art. His figurative sculptures, fountains, architectural friezes, bas-reliefs and carving can be found on buildings and streets throughout New Orleans from City Park to Lakefront Airport, from the Central Business District to Algiers Point. The sculpture was often classical while incorporating some art deco abstractions; as his subjects he championed laborers and women with much of his work representing aspects of his indigenous background. Alférez is the subject of a new biography by poet Katie Bowler Young called Enrique Alférez: Sculptor. Director of global relations at the University of North Carolina and a poetry professor at Warren Wilson College, as well as a poet, Katie Bowler Young had unrestricted access to his private papers and his family’s holdings; and, the result is a thoughtful, comprehensive, and visually-rich assessment of Enrique Alférez’s life and work. I spoke with Katie Bowler Young in the spring, and I was, of course, curious why a poet would choose to write a biography of Enrique Alférez?
Katie Bowler Young: I think of myself first as a poet and I do see a close relationship between the work that I’ve done on this biography and my life as a poet. So, I began looking into the life of Enrique Alférez when I was a college student and was going through a difficult time and saw a work of his, “The Fountain of the Four Winds” in a public space and it was someplace I could return to and find solace. I would take my poetry books and sit down between classes and little by little, I wondered who had created. As I learned more about Alférez, what I came to see was his careful study of the human condition that he represented in the human figure and I think of that very much as the work of the poet as well, that what we are doing or what I am doing in my poetry is trying to go into the interior and really see those connections between human emotion and the outer world and I see that in Alférez’s approach to his artwork as well.
Jo Reed: Well, why don’t you tell us just a little bit about Enrique Alférez because I will own my ignorance of really not knowing his work until I received your book and then looking through this book, which has incredible photographs, I was blown away.
Katie Bowler Young: Well, he left an impressive mark on the visual landscape of New Orleans between 1929 and 1999. Let me start at the beginning of his life. He was born in 1903 in Zacatecas, Mexico. As a young boy, he was part of a family in which his father was also a sculptor. His father primarily pursued religious art and from his father, Alférez learned to carve, model, draw, build up, learned about additives that could make clay more durable and as a youth in addition to working alongside his family, taking care of crops and working with his father in his studio, he also went to school and there was an incident at school in which he broke something and thought that he was going to get in trouble at home and might have seemed like a youthful solution at the time, he decided to run away and I have to think that in a different time and place, he might have been gone a few hours and returned home rather safely, but instead, he was swept into the Mexican Revolution and he was just a boy. He was serving under Pancho Villa and a general took to him when the general noticed that Alférez would make small statues and carve them and sell them or trade them to soldiers and so, this interest that he saw in Alférez of art prompted him to assign Alférez, in what seems to be a rather puzzling manner, to a man named Mariano Hernandez Arevalo, who was an artist and Alférez ended up living with Arevalo for a number of years. He crossed into the United States with Arevalo and Arevalo’s family in 1919 and began working in El Paso, worked for a photographer. He also found a job at a place called the Fine Art Shop and he ended up meeting of El Paso’s leaders, including former Mayor, Tom Lea Sr. and his son, Tom Lea Jr., who went on to become a prized painter of the US Southwest and an author and the two became lifelong friends.
Jo Reed: Alférez worked with the sculptor Lorado Taft in his Chicago studio. How did this happen? How did he meet Taft?
Katie Bowler Young: Sure, there was a life-changing moment in El Paso when Alférez and Lea went to see Lorado Taft, the dean of public sculpture in the United States, give a talk and Taft would frequently go on tour and talk not just about the craft of sculpture, but also, the history of it and that evening, Alférez sat in the audience and watched Taft on stage modeling a figure, building up in clay a figure of Marie Antoinette and then turning her into the face of an aged woman and Alférez said that even 60 years later when he reflected on it, it was like seeing magic and after the talk, Alférez and a few of his friends went backstage and Taft met the boys and Taft turned to them and said “Who’s the genius here?” and Lea pushed Alférez forward and I think of that as being kind of an unspooling moment at which the rest of his life began becoming solidified as a sculptor. He about a year later went and studied with Taft in his Midway Studios in Chicago. From him, he learned both craft and the technique as well as the history of sculpture and also, how to work as a professional sculptor and while he was there, he worked on prized art deco buildings in Chicago and then made his way to New Orleans a few years later.
Jo Reed: Before he gets to New Orleans, there are a couple things I would love to discuss: one is his extraordinary use of a range of media. He uses stone. He uses clay. He uses wood to create sculpture. And he created the elevator doors for one of those prized art deco buildings, the Palmolive building which are incredibly detailed carved wooden panels that he did, when, in 1928?
Katie Bowler Young: Yes. He worked on that in 1928 and he also contributed to other buildings in Chicago as well, including the building at 333 North Michigan Avenue. He did work across mediums and he did throughout his career. He worked, as you mentioned, in clay and wood and a variety of mediums, but he also, at other periods of his life, turned to things like furniture making and during World War II ran a leather goods shop in Greenwich Village and turned to producing women’s fashion and accessories.
Jo Reed: It’s as though he would work on whatever he could work on with whatever was around for him to work with.
Katie Bowler Young: Yes. I think of him as an inventor. If you were to visit his home in Morelia, where he lived between 1969 and 1999 on and off, the house is an amazing visual adventure of all of the things that he created. So, whether it’s carvings in doors or a copper tub or a clever little door that he built into the wall to easily pass a phone from one room to another, there are all these signs of how his mind was always inventing.
Jo Reed: Can you just described the Palmolive Building elevator doors because they are spectacular?
Katie Bowler Young: They really are spectacular and they have images of the female figure and those doors are ones that when we look at the figures themselves, I think of them as ones that become-- there are echoes of it throughout more of his work that you see later in his career. The way that the figures are holding themselves and their posture and the gaze, all of those are ones that we end up seeing again, whether he’s working more in a bas relief or in a more three-dimensional sculpture that I see as an early stage of him working out ideas around the female figure.
Jo Reed: How did he end up in New Orleans and what kept him there?
Katie Bowler Young: So, in 1929, Alférez, as he told the story, he was headed to Uxmal, to Yucatán, and he was going by way of New Orleans and ran low on funds and stopped to find some work. He did end up working on a church in Algiers, Louisiana for a number of months before he ended up connecting with a man named Frans Blom. Blom was an archaeologist at Tulane University and he had been hired to reproduce the Nunnery Quadrangle at Uxmal for the Century of Progress World’s Fair in Chicago that was going to take place in 1933 to ’34. And Taft might also have sparked some interest on Alférez’s part to go to New Orleans. Once he got there, though, he very quickly made a group of friends, fellow artists in the French Quarter, which had been coming to life with a confluence of writers and musicians and visual artists and he connected to what was called the Arts and Crafts Club, which gave artists a place to connect with one another, to learn, to teach, to exhibit, and it really ended up solidifying personal relationships that he had in the city and gave him a space in which to be appreciated as an artist and to work alongside others. So, he did go with Blom to Uxmal for that project and worked on the reproduction and I think of it as an early moment in which he really gained some agency as an artist. He was turned to as an expert, who ended up making some findings that Blom then wrote about in his research and their connection endured for about a decade. Alférez went back to New Orleans and ended up working during the WPA on City Park which is a large beautiful expansive green park right there in Mid-City in New Orleans, and I think of that as the project that really created an enduring tie for him to the city.
Jo Reed: Well, I really would like to talk about the impact he left on the visual landscape of the city. What was his draw to public art?
Katie Bowler Young: So, Alférez learned about public art from Lorado Taft in instructive ways that informed his career. Alférez’s approach to public art was about creating work that was in dialogue, so to speak, with space and that was both reflective of an environment as well as a shaper of the environment. I also think that there were important financial aspects of it during the WPA. He was among those who was able to be put to work in pursuing what he thought of as his labor. He considered his art and sculpture just that. That was his word, labor, and he was able to work on a number of projects in City Park, from the figures in fountains to benches and details on bridges and in many ways, really contributed to or created the spirit of the park.
Jo Reed: Well, looking at his work through your book, he always seemed to be in collaboration with the sites he designed for. What he did at the airport and that’s where the “Fountain of the Four Winds” is as well, but if you could describe the work he did there because, my god, the majesty of that airport and when you realize when it was being built, flying is not as commonplace as it is now, it was still this miraculous thing, and you get that by looking at that airport.
Katie Bowler Young: You do. It is a majestic airport and it was fully renovated. After Hurricane Katrina, I think of that as one of the pearls that came from a lot of destruction and loss, but as the building was being renovated, it became obvious that the original façade from the 1930s was still underneath a rather austere exterior that had been placed over it during the Cold War and it was restored to a truly glorious splendor and the exterior of the building has a couple of bas reliefs that Alférez created, including a figure over the portico and others that are seen throughout the exterior. The most impressive piece of his at the Lakefront Airport is the “Fountain of the Four Winds” and so, there are the four mythical figures that are about nine feet tall each. They sat at the center, sit at the center, of an elliptical basin and there was a very impressive spray when he would create a fountain, he gave attention to the direction and the flow of the water as an overall part of the composition of that visual landscape. Now, when that airport was built, you’re right, flying was not so commonplace and there were a number of details in the airport that were designed to inspire the traveler, their murals on the inside, for example, that try to help the visitor experience a sense of I guess you could say adventure and peace about flying.
Jo Reed: And didn’t he carve the frieze above the murals?
Katie Bowler Young: He did. As you walk into the airport and you see a compass that’s on the ground of the main floor and you look up and you can see a frieze that encircles the ceiling and it includes figures that contributed to the life of the airport. So, you see laborers and draftsmen and those who both were responsible for the design of the airport as well as its ongoing work and that kind of approach to his work appears in other places as well. It picks up, again, in City Park, where he worked on bridges that include figures of people who were working on the park.
Jo Reed: Including African American laborers.
Katie Bowler Young: He did. He included African American laborers. The figures were at work in a variety of ways. They might be using surveying equipment or pushing a wheelbarrow, for example, and these appear along the bridge wall and when he included the African American figures, there was a fair degree of blowback in the community. It was a bit controversial and his response to it was that he wanted to represent those who were working there and who were contributing in meaningful ways to creating this beautiful space that they lacked access to at the time as well. He also said that he thought it was important to be able to represent those who he was working alongside and he knew them to be talented craftsmen, something he came to know as a result of working alongside and together. He also suffered similar social penalties that African Americans did in a variety of ways throughout his life.
Jo Reed: Yes. I was going to ask you about that because he is an immigrant. He’s Mexican and he’s indigenous.
Katie Bowler Young: He is all of that. I’d say that the degree to which he was accepted varied across time and place. He lived almost the entire 20th Century. Norms changed throughout that period, but he definitely experienced a level of exclusion that when I think about why it was that I was so attracted to his life and to know more about him, it was that I saw even in the most difficult circumstances that he faced, that he continued to triumph and that he had an expectation of dignity both for himself and for others and I think that is represented in his art and simply in the way that he lived his life.
Jo Reed: Well, he included many women in his work. He included, as we said, African Americans and indigenous people as well.
Katie Bowler Young: He did and one of the aspects of work that he turned to later in his career as he started producing smaller figurative sculpture, there are aspects of his indigenous Nahua heritage. In one of his iconic works, for example, called “Women in a Huipal” that is today in the Botanical Garden at City Park in New Orleans, the figure is featured wearing a huipal, which is a traditional garment that is worn both in routine everyday circumstances as well as in ceremonial circumstances. A woman might, for example, acquire one early in life that she knew would be a burial garment and these kinds of visual connections are made through a number of series of works that he created, “Charros,” or traditional horsemen of the charreria, the rodeo, which is said to have started in his home state of Zacatecas and other works as well, but that “Woman in a Huipal” I think of as iconic for a few reasons in terms of creating that visual connection between his art as it is seen in New Orleans and his home in Mexico and that’s that when it was unveiled in the early 1980s at the New Orleans Museum of Art, it was around the time that he also went back to the city, returned to the city to work again at the Botanical Garden to conduct a restoration of works that had fallen into disrepair and to contribute new works as well and I think of it as a kind of special homecoming for him in seeing that work find a permanent home there in City Park. It is in the collection of the New Orleans Museum of Art and on loan to the Botanical Garden and it really is a splendid piece.
Jo Reed: It’s very graceful and at the same time, so rooted to the earth because of its shape and it is in some ways, it relates to but is quite different from some of his other work in the park which seem to defy gravity, like “The Gymnasts” a statue of a person balanced on her hand or the dolphins spraying along the side of a fountain, they just seem to be in midair. It’s just remarkable.
Katie Bowler Young: He did say that gravity was the enemy of the sculptor.
Jo Reed: He certainly succeeded in conquering it.
Katie Bowler Young: I think that was one thing he wanted to conquer as well as defining human emotion more honestly, by which I think he meant he was interested in being able to delve into the facial-- the features to understand the muscles and the movement that are part of the emotions that can cross our faces and then become represented in the figure. When I think about your observation of “Woman in a Huipal” feeling so rooted to the earth, a lot of that, I think, is accomplished through her feet and how she is poised on her feet. It’s a figure that Alférez revised a number of times, seeking to find just the right tone for the piece, how her hands are positioned, how her head is tilted, how her feet are placed varies just slightly as he’s working toward that ideal form.
Jo Reed: Well, another form that came much earlier-- please forgive my Spanish, “La Soldadera?”
Katie Bowler Young: Yes, “La Soldadera” is a figure that he began imagining as early as the 1930s. And the soldaderas had a very important influence in his life. Again, when he was in the Revolution for a relatively brief period, he was cared for in a maternal way by the soldaderas, who were alongside the men, often their husbands with their families in the war. They would make camp. When soldiers fell, they would sometimes pick up weapons and continue on themselves and Alférez had a very important connection to them that persisted and he did ultimately work on that figure, again, in the 1970s. It was cast in the 1980s and he made an important figurative gesture in that figure. He created the sculpture such that the face of “La Soldadera” resembles his mother and it is a figurative gesture. There is no evidence to suggest that his mother served in the Mexican Revolution herself, but that what I think he was drawing a connection to is the strength between maternal care for family and community as well as the strength of the women who he witnessed during the Revolution.
Jo Reed: Well, the look on the woman’s face is so fierce. She’s looking off to the left, as though somebody could be approaching and she’s very much on guard and she has a child suckling at her breast and a rifle at her back.
Katie Bowler Young: Yes. She’s one fierce mother.
Jo Reed: Whoa. I’ve never seen anything like it.
Katie Bowler Young: She is definitely looking for that threat that could be oncoming and also, protecting her infant in a way that the infant is blissfully unaware of the potential for threat. If you look at that figure, even the way the infant’s feet are positioned, you can see a sense of how relaxed the baby is and, again, I think that was Alférez created a gesture to the strength that women have for family and for community and for the care of children who they love and protect.
Jo Reed: And that’s in New Orleans now?
Katie Bowler Young: It is. It is also in the Helis Foundation Enrique Alférez Garden, which was established in 2015 in the Botanical Garden at City Park. It is a beautiful garden that features more than a dozen of his works, some of which were purchased and on loan from the Helis Foundation, which has been a generous supporter of Alférez’s legacy. Others were gifts from the community, people whose families had received or purchased artwork by Alférez over the years and then gifted it back to be in a public space.
Jo Reed: I wanted to talk about art in public space. He certainly has work in museums as well and private collections. But perhaps using Alférez as a jumping off point, I’d like your thoughts on what art in public spaces brings to a community.
Katie Bowler Young: At its best, I think that public art provides a sense of comfort, reinforces identity and connection to place. When I reflect on my own point of origin for this book and think about the difficult period that I was going through and how I found a sense of security because I had access to the art that was in a public space, because I could sit there freely and admire it without being shooed away, there was no concern about my lingering there for extended periods of time and it gave me a place that I felt kind of protected from the worldly realities that I otherwise was facing and it began to spark curiosity and I think that curiosity is such an important part of inspiring us in terms of just how we live our lives that that’s the best that we can get from public art.
Jo Reed: One of the many things I find so fascinating about Alférez’s work is that it is very distinctive and at the same time, most of his work was done in collaboration.
Katie Bowler Young: It’s one of the interesting parts of sculpture and particularly of the sculpture of this size, that as many as 15 or so people might be involved and it could take many months and if you look back at some of the architectural details that he created as well, that too was a collaboration with an architect who would have provided him with details or a narrative of what they were looking for and Alférez would have submitted drawings and that too, I think of as a collaborative, creative process. My instinct is that that is something that Alférez really enjoyed about sculpture as a form, as a discipline and he also drew extensively and I see that as more of what he was doing on his own and that too I see echoes of in my own work as a writer, looking at the writing or the work that I am doing by myself versus those pieces of what we create as writers that come from the network of people who in some way are influencing the words that end up on our pages.
Jo Reed: Now, we began this conversation by acknowledging you as a poet and I want to talk about process, your process, for a second and describe the differences for you in writing poetry and writing this biography.
Katie Bowler Young: Writing prose and writing poetry have a lot of similarities and a lot of differences. If there are points at which there are-- let me take that from the top, Jo. Yes. So, in thinking about the differences between my approach to poetry and my approach to writing this biography, I can say that one thing that was consistent was my form of discipline, the time of day that I worked, approach to writing. What was very different was the type of research that needed to be conducted as well as the extraordinary amount of fact-checking, which of course, I also do in my poetry as well. If I am writing about particular birds or environmental landscapes, I will fact check myself to make sure that I’ve included the right details of nature. I think that one of the things that I find an interesting connection between my interest in poetry and my interest in Alférez’s art and writing biography really is also about the discipline of the visual artist. I very much enjoy writing about artists and their process, watching them work, seeing how they provide-- I’m going to take it from the top again, Jo. This is a really interesting topic and I want to try to get it right. Thinking about my interest in writing both poetry and then also writing about art, I’m intrigued by the process that artists take when they are creating any form of visual art. So, whether they’re painting or sculpting or creating pottery or other clay works, I’m intrigued by the attention to detail, how they will spend a certain amount of attention to the detail in one area and then also give attention to the work as whole and that too is something that I think of as crucial when you’re working as a poet, that you are seeking just the right word to put in just the right place and in this economy of detail, it needs to be just so.
Jo Reed: Yeah. I can hear that. I wonder if you’ve learned anything from doing this project that you can bring back to your own work as a poet.
Katie Bowler Young: I do think that I’m bringing a lot back into my work as a poet and I have also, in the last year, branched out to become a fiction writer and I think the approach to writing a biography gave me a sense of how to approach writing at this scale and so, I am writing a novel at this point that I think will be my first published novel. It takes place over a little over 100 years across a couple of geographies with multiple generations of families in two different places and I think all of the work that I had to do on Alférez’s biography to understand time and place in which he lived, that it wasn’t enough to know what he was doing. I needed to understand the world and the communities that he was a part of in moving through, all of that became instructive to me in how I could create an imaginary world of a novel.
Jo Reed: And finally, Katie, what would you like a reader from Enrique Alférez: Sculptor to take away?
Katie Bowler Young: I certainly want a reader to recognize the value and the legacy of his artwork and also, to be able to see how he represented many people in his art and so many can see themselves in the work that he created and also, since I have been so inspired by the discipline with which he approached his work, sometimes working 12 hours, 13 hours a day in his studio by sunrise, I like to think that we also can borrow ideas from him about how we can approach the things we love.
Jo Reed: I think that’s a good place to end it. Katie, thank you so much.
Katie Bowler Young: Thank you, Jo.
Jo Reed: And thank you for writing this book and again, I want to emphasize the prose-- gorgeous, you’re a poet. But the pictures-- it is filled with photographs which I think are so necessary when you’re writing a book about an artist.
Katie Bowler Young: Thank you. I think the Historic New Orleans Collection did a beautiful job in creating this book and being able to bring not just my words to life, but to really show off the beautiful work that he created during his life.
Jo Reed: I would agree. Thank you so much, Katie.
Katie Bowler Young: Thank you, Jo.
Jo Reed: That was Katie Bowler Young—we were talking about her biography Enrique Alférez: Sculptor. It’s available at independent bookstores. You’ve been listening to Art Works produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. I’m Josephine Reed—stay safe and thanks for listening.
One of the most important public artists in New Orleans is Enrique Alférez who was born in rural Mexico of indigenous Nahua heritage. His life spanned the 20th century, and his distinctive vision helped shape the look of the city. His figurative sculptures, fountains, architectural friezes, bas-reliefs and carvings can be found on buildings and streets throughout New Orleans from City Park to Lakefront Airport, from the Central Business District to Algiers Point. Alférez is the subject of a new biography by poet Katie Bowler Young called Enrique Alférez: Sculptor. Young had unrestricted access to his private papers and his family’s holdings; and, the result is a thoughtful, comprehensive, and visually-rich assessment of Enrique Alférez’s life and work. In this podcast, Young discusses the breadth of Alférez‘s work, his commitment to public art, his place in the New Orleans’ visual landscape, his celebration of women and laborers, his time with Pancho Villa’s revolutionary army (oh yes!) and why a poet would take on the task of writing a biography—even one of a great artist.